Are There Quilts Which Set Standards (Part 2)

Last week we began a discussion on quilts which set standards for quilters and some historically significant quilts. I decided (at least for myself) the Log Cabin, Broidery Perse, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, and Sunbonnet Sue were some of the quilts which set standards. We had just begun our discussion on historically significant quilts. We covered two out of eight: The Jane Stickle Quilt and Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt. Today we pick up with number three.

3.  The AIDS Quilt

The Quilt That Brought Us Together

In 1978, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated.  Cleve Jones, a long-time activist, author, and lecturer organized an annual candlelight march to remember these men.  Over the ensuing years, Jones learned over 1,000 San Franciscans had lost their lives to AIDS.  In 1985, he asked marchers to write the names of loved ones who had died from the disease on a placard and carry the placard with them as they walked.  At the end of the march, Jones and others taped the placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building, resulting in a wall which looked much like a patchwork quilt. 

That wall inspired the quilt.  In June 1987, Jones teamed up with Mike Smith, Bert McMullin, and others to formally organize the NAMES Project Foundation – birthed because folks wanted to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS and to help people understand the devastating impact of the disease.  Due to the influence of the placard-laden wall, the AIDS Quilt Project was born.  Public response to the Quilt was immediate. People in the U.S. cities most affected by AIDS — Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — sent panels to the San Francisco workshop. Generous donors rapidly supplied sewing machines, equipment, and other materials, and many volunteered tirelessly.

On October 11, 1987, the Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. Six teams of eight volunteers ceremonially unfolded the Quilt sections at sunrise as celebrities, politicians, families, lovers, and friends read aloud the 1,920 names of the people represented in Quilt. The reading of names is now a tradition followed at nearly every Quilt display. Half a million people visited the Quilt that weekend.

The overwhelming response to the Quilt’s inaugural display led to a four-month, 20-city, national tour for the Quilt in the spring and summer of 1988. The tour raised nearly $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS service organizations. More than 9,000 volunteers across the country helped the seven-person traveling crew move and display the Quilt. Local panels were added in each city, tripling the Quilt’s size to more than 6,000 panels by the end of the tour.

The Quilt returned to Washington, D.C. in October of 1988, when 8,288 panels were displayed on the Ellipse in front of the White House.  With a small seed grant from the World Health Organization, Quilt organizers travelled to eight countries to mark the first World AIDS Day on December 1, 1988, with simultaneous displays broadcast from six continents.  Throughout 1989, more than 20 countries launched similar commemorative projects.

In 1989 a second tour of North America brought the Quilt to 19 additional cities in the United States and Canada.  In October of that year, the Quilt (now more than 12,000 panels in size) was again displayed on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.  HBO released their documentary film on the Quilt, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, which brought the Quilt’s message to millions of movie-goers. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1989.

By 1992, the AIDS Memorial Quilt included panels from every state and 28 countries. In October 1992, the entire Quilt returned to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  In January 1993, the NAMES Project was invited to march in President Clinton’s inaugural parade where over 200 volunteers carried Quilt panels down Pennsylvania Avenue.  The last display of the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt was in October of 1996 when the Quilt covered the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C. with an estimated 1.2 million people coming to view it.  The Clintons and Gores attended the display, marking the first visit by a sitting president of the United States. 

Since 1992, the quilt has received 8,000 additional new panels and has become too large to display in its entirety.  In 2012, the quilt was displayed once again on the National Mall and 1,500 panels were shown each day, with volunteers rotating the panels out each morning over a two-week period. 

In November 2019, the National AIDS Memorial became the permanent caretaker and steward of the Quilt, returning it to San Francisco, where its story began during the height of the AIDS epidemic.  At that time, the Quilt’s archival collection of 200,000 objects, documents, cards, and letters that chronicle the lives remembered in it were transferred to the prestigious American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, making this collection available through the world’s largest public library.  This announcement, made at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, featured special guests House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Representatives John Lewis and Barbara Lee, who recognized the Quilt as a national treasure that must be preserved for its ability to teach for generations to come.  Currently the entire quilt can be seen on-line as part of the Interactive AIDS Quilt project.  It is well-worth noting this quilt weighs 54 tons, has nearly 50,000 panels, and represents over 110,000 individuals who died with AIDS.  It is also still a quilt in progress, as new panels are added every year.  The National AIDS Memorial is entrusted with its care, protection, and preservation.

4. Rose Kretsiner’s Paradise Garden

The Most Perfect Applique Quilt

I realize I covered this quilt in a lot of detail in this blog:, I think this one quilt, even more than Marie Webster’s beautiful applique, pushed the art of applique to its heights.  I adore Marie Webster’s work, and her Sunflower quilt is on my bucket list of projects, but keep in mind Marie owned Practical Patchwork Company and her business was developing quilt patterns and quilt kits for folks who had little to no applique experience – which she excelled at.  And I’m still angry with Mountain Mist because you can’t tell me they didn’t directly copy her most popular designs and printed the patterns without giving her a scrap of credit. 

But Rose Kretsinger’s applique quilts were at an entirely different level than Marie’s.  They pushed the limits (and sometimes seemed to defy the art) of applique.  Exquisite to look at and exuberant in detail, her Paradise Garden presented a set of applique standards which today’s quilters still strive to match.  She continued to push well-defined rings of white space (which adds “breathing room” to any quilt) and stepped away from using the pastels which dominated quilting in the 1930’s.  She used bold fabrics – primarily all calicoes – in her quilt.  She also set the standards for applique medallion quilts we still try to adhere to today:  Use plenty of white space, use complementary colors, use several values of each color, frame the circle, use graceful curves, and keep a good ratio between the center medallion and the border. No one did this better than Rose Kretsinger.  And Paradise Garden is the best example of a nearly perfect applique quilt.

5. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

The Quilts That Shook Up the Quilt World

Nestled down in Alabama, is a little town called Boykin.  The name Boykin may not ring any bells with you as far as quilts and quilters go, but the name Gee’s Bend certainly should – which is the nickname of Boykin, Alabama.  Through a series of events, this area of Alabama remained largely isolated until 2006 when ferry service was finally reinstated to Gee’s Bend.  Around 1960, quilts from this area began receiving some national attention.  Collector William Arnett brought additional attention to the quilts and quilters with a 2002 exhibition, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” in Houston, Texas.  This show contained 60 quilts from 45 different quilters and drew both national and international attention to the quilts.  Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation to organize and collect the Gee’s Bend Quilts.  The organization supports the quilt makers as well as provides documentation, marketing, and fundraising.  Some of the money raised provides education and other opportunities for the quilters.  The foundation is also involved in a multi-year campaign with the Artists Rights Society to gain intellectual property rights for the quilters of Gee’s Bend.

For years the women of Gee’s Bend pieced strips of cloth together to make warm bed coverings for their families.  These quilts were heavily influenced by Native American and African textiles.  The colors were bright.  The quilts were geometric in design, yet highly improvisational. 

The quilts have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Turner Contemporary in the UK, among others. The reception of the work has been mostly positive, as Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston wrote, “The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quilt making. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making”.The Whitney venue, in particular, brought a great deal of art-world attention to the work, starting with Michael Kimmelman’s 2002 review in The New York Times which called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” and went on to describe them as a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South. Comparable effect can be seen in the quilts of isolated individuals such as Rosie Lee Tompkins, but the Gee’s Bend quilters had the advantage of numbers and backstory.

In 2003, 50 quilt makers founded the Gee’s Bend Collective, which is owned and operated by the women of Gee’s Bend. Every quilt sold by the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective is unique and individually produced. In recent years, members of the Collective have traveled nationwide to talk about Gee’s Bend’s history and their art. Many of the ladies have become well known for their wit, engaging personality and, in some cases, singing abilities.

In 2015, Gee’s Bend quilters Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway were joint recipients of a National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. In 2023, the quilters collaborated with generative artist Anna Lucia to create digital works of art on the blockchain in a project called Generations.

While the Gee’s Bend Quilts have not been without controversy (a few of the quilters sued William Arnett, claiming he had swindled them out of thousands of dollars), for the most part they breathed fresh air into the quilt world.  Their quilts are made from recycled clothing and fabric.  They are abstract, improvised works of art which shook up the quilt world.  They pushed the boundaries of “normal” quilts – you don’t need a pattern, your corners don’t have to meet, and everything doesn’t just have be matchy-matchy.  They’re scrap quilts with a new glory added to them.  They demonstrate the great beauty found in so-called “imperfections.”

6.  Quilts by Denyse Schmidt

Quilts That Cultivated the Modern Quilt Movement

Unless you’re a quilter who has quilted under a rock for the past twenty years, you have heard about the Modern Quilt Movement.  The MQM is defined as “Quilts which include a minimalist style; they emphasize negative space rather than intricate patchwork. They may feature bold colors and graphic designs that give a high-contrast pop. And modern quilts often feature asymmetry and use unusual block placement and off-center motifs.”

According to quilt history, the MQM began in 1998. However, it is the quilts by Denyse Schmidt which really pushed the MQM into the quilting world’s consciousness.  Denyse is a former graphic designer and a graduate of The Rhode Island School of Design who began quilting in 1996.  Other folks, like Weekes Ringle and Bill Kerr may have begun constructing Modern Quilts before Denyse, however, it was Denyse who brought the movement to the attention of quilters and non-quilters everywhere.  Her designs are modern – they’re bright, clean, and use negative space well – but they are based on “traditional” blocks and quilts.   Since 2003, Chronicle Books has brought to market more than a dozen stationery and gift items based on her work, as well as her first how-to book, “Denyse Schmidt Quilts, 30 Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects”. With FreeSpirit Fabrics, Denyse designs fabric collections for independent quilt and fabric stores. In 2011, her DS Quilts Collection fabric line debuted with record-breaking sales in JoAnn Stores (US) and Spotlight Stores (Australia). In conjunction with her DS Quilts Collection fabrics, Denyse launched quilt patterns featuring her signature style with the venerable McCall Pattern Company. Denyse’s newest book, “Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration” (STC Craft | A Melanie Falick Book; April 2012) is an elegant homage to quilting’s rich heritage.

Denyse continues to teach her highly successful improvisational patchwork piecing workshops in her studio. Schmidt’s studio is located in a historic factory building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And while I can’t put my finger on just one quilt of hers which flipped the “on” switch to the MQM, in my opinion she is the one quilt artist which bridged the gap between “traditional” quilters and “modern” ones.  Her quilts are simply lovely. 

7.  Baltimore Album Quilts

The Elevated Album Quilt with Methodist Connections

Before we jump into Baltimore Album Quilts, let’s revisit the definition of an Album Quilt.  According to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, “An album quilt was a collection of many designs sewn by different women and then joined to form one large quilt. Sometimes the makers even signed their names. Creating album quilts gave women a chance to socialize and to demonstrate their artistry.”  Sometimes these Album Quilts were made from the same pieced or appliqued block and sometimes they weren’t.  The ladies of Baltimore took the Album Quilt concept and elevated it to the next level.

Baltimore Album Quilts originated in 1846 in Baltimore, Maryland.  At this particular time, Baltimore was a Methodist church center – more Methodist churches were located there per capita than anywhere else in our nation.  So many of the quilt makers were Methodist congregants that early BAQs were called “Methodist Quilts.” The women who made these quilts were called “Ladies of Baltimore. This type of quilt had a pretty short shelf life in terms of popularity.  Once the trend started began 1846 it was over by 1852.  This is one of the shortest (if not THE shortest) quilting trends in history.  And while Album Quilts were certainly not a new type of quilt, the style of the Baltimore quilt was.

Quilt historians believe Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854), a convert to Methodism who married a Methodist in defiance of her father, a wealthy merchant, actually began the Baltimore Album period.  She designed quilts and was a patron of quilters, to whom she supplied money, materials and the use of her home. The research has also identified one needlewoman, whose expert stitching is its own signature in quilt after quilt, as Mary Evans Ford, daughter of a bricklayer. So far, at least 50 quilts with one or more blocks by Mary Evans Ford have been identified.

Why did the production of these quilts stop in 1852? Some say that album quilts were no longer fashionable in the 1850’s. It’s also likely The Ladies of Baltimore probably dispersed and that some married. Then, in 1854, Mrs. Wilkins, its guiding design genius, died. Though this burst of creativity was short, it was one of the most important needlework expressions in this country’s history.

Technically, these quilts are among the finest of any kind produced in this country. And from quilt to quilt there are recurring devices favored by the quiltmaker. The padding and rouching add sculptural effects to the surface. Three-dimensional white roses appear again and again. The cut work is deft, especially when used to create the bent cane of baskets. The eyes of birds have been so carefully inked in that they seem almost alive, and the bodies of birds are crafted of moire fabrics to suggest feathers.

It’s also important to remember that lots of album quilts were made before, during, and after the 1846-1852 Baltimore Album period.  Many of these quilts look very, very much like Baltimores, but three different style of blocks set Baltimore Album Quilts apart from the others:

 Style One:  These blocks are highly styled multi-pieced blocks which are elaborately appliqued with floral wreaths, baskets of flowers or fruit, monuments, cornucopias, patriotic designs, eagles with the American flag, and birds and butterflies.  These blocks can consist of between 100 to 175 individual pieces. 

Style One

Style Two:  These are simpler blocks with fewer applique pieces – generally between 10 and 30 pieces.  Many, but not all, of Style Two blocks are red and green.

Style Two

Style Three: These blocks consist of primarily solid fabrics with 35 to 50 applique pieces involved in the setting.  These blocks have been found in Baltimore Album dating from1846 to 1848, but a few have been discovered dated post-1848. Many of these blocks have a stylized rose we call “The Hotdog Rose.”

Style Three Blocks. The “Hot Dog Rose” is demonstrated on the first blocks in the second and third rows.

As gorgeous and truly wonderful as these quilts are, it’s easy to see how some writer could throw out the statement, “These are the quilts which set the standards for all others.”  However, that’s not completely true.  While I do think these quilts set quite a few guidelines and near perfect techniques for applique quilters to live up to, I can’t see why this one set of short-lived, geographically locked quilts could be “THE Standard.”  Yes, they are important.  But no more important than the Stickle Quilt.

8.  The Beatles Quilt

Raw-Edge Applique Perfection

I was introduced to this quilt several years ago when I was in Paducah for the AQS show.  This happened to be my first pilgrimage to the Mothership of AQS Shows and Quilt Town USA.  Friends who had made the trek before mentioned no pilgrimage would be complete without a tour of the National Quilt Museum, which I dutifully undertook.  This quilt was hanging in the center of the museum, and you just couldn’t miss it – all the bright colors made it stand out from the rest of the quilts on display.  I also found out another wonderful thing about the NQM during quilt week.  The creators and designers of the quilts on display can drop by, unannounced, and talk about their quilt.  There really isn’t a time schedule, they just come by, and they’re handed a mic and a speaker.  I was lucky – so, so lucky – to be there the day Sue Nickels and Pat Holly (The Beatles Quilt creators) dropped by for a chat. 

They explained their creative process and who does what.  Since they’re sisters, they think alike on many aspects and encourage each other.  They divided the work equally and used the folk-art styles of the 1800’s for inspiration. There is a Tree of Life in the center, and each of the four album blocks represents one of the Beatles – the blocks have guitars, hands, and each Beatle’s name and birthdate.   The applique is done using a stitched raw edge fusible machine technique.  Pat did most of the precision piecing and Sue did most of the machine quilting.  The quilt took about two years to complete and took Best of Show in 1998.  Every section, every detail of this quilt means something…the Beatle’s wives…Yoko…each musical hit.  It’s all somewhere in this quilt.  See if you can spot the Yellow Submarine, the Octopus’s Garden, and Penny Lane. 

So why do I think this quilt represents raw-edge applique perfection?  Well, it did win best of show.  But beyond this, if you closely examine the quilt, it’s filled with the tiniest of tiny pieces of applique, each one stitched down with near perfect stitching.  It’s bright, it tells a story (the best quilts tell stories), and it’s fun.  And if something’s fun, it encourages you to try it.  Even the quilter who is most reluctant to try raw-edge applique would want to give it a go after viewing this quilt. 

This blog has covered a lot of ground and a lot of quilts.  All my choices are probably not all your choices.  As a matter of fact, some of you may disagree vehemently with me.

And that’s fine.  When I began writing this blog over 6,000 words ago, I hoped it would open up some dialog between us about the quilts which set technique standards and historical quilts.  Don’t agree with all my choices?  Let me know in the comments.  Want to add a quilt for consideration?  Put that in the comments, too. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference (they certainly did concerning the quilts in my blog)!

Love and Stitches,


2 replies on “Are There Quilts Which Set Standards (Part 2)”

Thanks for another fascinating article, Sherri. I agree with all except the Beatles quilt. I’m not sure that one is really well known enough to be a big influence, though I certainly agree that Pat Holly and Sue Nickels are superstars and influencers in the quilt world.

I don’t think the picture did the Beatles Quilt justice. Seeing it up close and in person — it is so beautiful and detailed. I do think Pat and Sue really brough raw-edge applique to the forefront and made machine applique easier for almost everyone.

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